Andrzej Wajda, 1926 - 2016
The director of ASHES AND DIAMONDS, MAN OF IRON and KATYN was 90. Updated through 10/24.
"Poland's most distinguished film director Andrzej Wajda has died tonight," tweets Jakub Krupa, UK Correspondent for the Polish Press Agency. "He was 90. His film Afterimage is Poland's entry to Oscars 2017."
When Afterimage premiered in Toronto a couple of weeks ago, Dennis Harvey, writing for Variety, called it "a somber portrait of a Polish artist who, unlike his portraitist here, was defeated by the fickle shifts of political ideology imposed on art." Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter: "His subject this time is the avant-garde painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski, a martyr to philistine Stalinist orthodoxy, but there may also be a hint of personal identification in this love letter from one dissident Polish artist to another." The film finds Wajda "on starchy autumnal form, taking potshots at a familiar enemy. But Stalin murdered his father, after all, so this undimmed animosity is entirely understandable."
"Andrzej Wajda’s first feature film, A Generation, made in 1954, marks the beginning of the Polish School, the paradigm of Polish cinema that arose from the political and cultural thaw of the mid-1950s," wrote Ewa Mazierska for Criterion in 2005. "It is also the first chapter in what has come to be known as the director’s 'war trilogy,' a series of films—continuing with Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds—tracing the history of Poland during World War Two. These films stand together as sharing not just a historical subject but a historical moment of creation, between 1954 and 1958—a volatile time when the nation was struggling to shed the legacy of Stalinist oppression. They also have in common a visual style and thematic preoccupations unique to this period of Wajda’s work, shot expressionistically in black-and-white and heavy with symbolism rooted in Polish Romanticism."
Also in 2005, John Simon wrote of Kanal, made in 1956 and released in 1957: "Almost half a century later, the film is still self-sufficient and unique: an antiwar movie in which we see scarcely a single combat death. But the dark radiance of doom haloes one and all. Most films are about the unexpected; Kanal blends it with the inevitable."
"Ashes and Diamonds has rightly been lauded as one of the finest of postwar East-Central European films, and the most vital work of the Polish School," wrote Paul Coates that same year. "If, for all its tragedy and multiple ironies, the film exhilarates, it is through the power of its artistry and because the authority of its synthetic image of the postwar Polish dilemma does indeed tell as much of the truth as could be told."
Blažena Urgošiková in Film Reference on the trilogy: "In these films we also see the formation of Wajda's own artistic stamp, his creative method, which consists of an emotional approach to history, a romantic conception of human fate, a rich visual sense, and dense expression that is elaborate to the point of being baroque."
"His best-known film, Man of Iron , was a fevered tribute to the emergent Solidarity movement," wrote Dan Yakir, introducing an interview with the filmmaker for Film Comment in 1984. "Rarely has a film carried such a double impact, as a document of Solidarity’s past and a rallying cry for its brief, desperate future." Also honorably mentioned are "Everything for Sale (1968), an exploration of the Warsaw film scene in which a Cybulski-like character (played by his heir to the angst-and-fire throne, Daniel Olbrychski) disappears, causing the opening of a celluloid Pandora’s box; and the 1977 Man of Marble, about film and politics in post-Stalinist Poland. Of his more recent films, Danton  and the current A Love in Germany, from the Rolf Hochhuth novel about a forbidden love affair between a German shopkeeper (Hanna Schygulla) and a Polish POW (Pyotr Lysak) in Nazi Germany, certainly have the literary weight they mean to convey."
"Wajda managed to recapture a genuine rapport with his audience in 1999 following his production of Pan Tadeusz, based on the acclaimed novel by Adam Mickiewicz," notes Culture.pl. "This grand-scale project was taken up while Polish cinemas were overflowing with super-productions of national prose works on compulsory reading lists, and in retrospective Wajda's Pan Tadeusz turned out to be the only masterpiece among them…. After many years of communist censorship which restricted film-makers from dealing with sensitive topics such as the wartime massacres in the Katyń Forest of eastern Russia of 1940. After 1989, Wajda started working on the script to the movie Katyń, but didn't manage to finish it until 2007. Wajda's Katyń was the first Polish movie on the heated topic."
The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw called Katyń "a powerful and even remarkable memorial to these victims and to the belated destruction of one of the most persistent untruths about the second world war…. This is a film made with great moral seriousness, and with a clear-eyed deliberation: it is sombre and measured as it treads carefully around this most contentious mass grave in Polish history. Yet there are flashes of poetry and tragedy."
Updates, 10/10: "The crown of the trilogy and perhaps Wajda’s finest work, Ashes and Diamonds (1958), takes place on the last day of the war," writes Ronald Bergan in the Guardian. "Its enigmatic, twilight world communicated the 'Polish experience' beyond the frontiers as few films have done. The brilliant young actor Zbigniew Cybulski embodied the skeptical new generation in his anti-heroic role of a nationalist ordered to kill a communist leader…. Cybulski also appeared in Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960), an ironic sex comedy which uncompromisingly dealt with modern Polish youth. Sadly, the shortsighted Cybulski was killed while running for a train in 1967, at the age of 40, and Everything for Sale (1969) was Wajda’s film-within-a-film homage to the actor."
For the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, the Man of Marble trilogy "is in many ways his most formidable achievement, more fascinating for having been completed so late in its own historical span. It is a kind of eastern bloc Citizen Kane—and Wajda’s relationship to Welles is an underappreciated part of his work. In Man of Marble, a young filmmaker, Agnieszka, sets out to investigate the truth behind one of communist Poland’s most legendary figures: an inspirational Stakhanovite worker called Birkut, a heroic bricklayer commemorated in many marble statues, but whose whereabouts are now unclear. This young film-maker has to reconstruct what she can from newsreels, an official propaganda film and talking to people who knew him, and she uncovers a shabby story of official mistreatment. In Man of Iron, Birkut’s son Maciej has married Agnieszka and is now a steel-worker, union activist and transparently a model for Lech Wałęsa. Wałęsa got his own unfictionalized treatment in the final film, which appeared 20 years later: Wałesa: Man of Hope."
"His absorption in Polish sensibilities, and in quintessentially Polish subjects, like the romantic appeal of lost causes, extended beyond plot and subtext to the iconography with which he filled his movies, a tendency he lamented but could not escape," writes Michael T. Kaufman in the New York Times. "'I would gladly trade in this clutch of national symbols—sabers, white horses, red poppies—for a handful of sexual symbols from a Freudian textbook,' he once said. 'The trouble is that I just wasn’t brought up on Freud.'"
"Wajda received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2000," notes Monika Scislowska her report for the AP. "He was cited as 'a man whose films have given audiences around the world an artist's view of history, democracy and freedom, and who in so doing has himself become a symbol of courage and hope for millions of people in postwar Europe.' Wajda made more than 40 films in all. Also nominated for Academy Awards were The Promised Land (1975)—a tale of ideals lost in the rush to get rich—and The Maids of Wilko (1979) about the demise of love, as well as Katyn in 2007."
"His death left Poland's film industry in shock," reports Nick Holdsworth. "Michal Kwiecinski, who produced Afterimage as well as three more of the director's recent films, Katyn, Sweet Rush and Walesa: Man of Hope, told the Hollywood Reporter: 'We are deeply moved by the sudden and unexpected news of Andrzej's passing away.' He added: 'We were planning the next presentations of his latest film, Afterimage, with him. This was a film he was very keen to show and discuss with people due to its political relevance.' And he said: 'We are in a deep sorrow and just hope that his wisdom and insight will continue guiding us through films now.'"
Updates, 10/11: "Helped by widespread international acclaim, Wajda was unusually prolific in a part of the world where directors who weren’t in line with the status quo often struggled for years to get projects off the ground," writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club. "The Ashes (1965), a nearly 4-hour epic set during the Napoleonic Wars, inaugurated a period of sweeping historical films and literary adaptations, marked by the kind of expressionist flourishes that endeared Wajda to such American fans as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. These included Landscape After Battle (1970), about concentration camp survivors; Pilate and Others (1972), an adaptation of the biblical sections of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Master and Margarita, made in West Germany; and The Promised Land (1975), an operatic three-hour drama centered on a 19th century factory."
"In his late masterpiece, the tragically underseen Tatarak (2009), Polish master Andrzej Wajda revealed the stylistic adventurousness and verve of a much younger artist with an intoxicating and bracing mixture of ardor and memory," writes Patrick Z. McGavin. "Tatarak was a ravishing and lucid work that crystallized the director’s great gifts, his sensitive and exquisite handling of actors, his use of space and time and his capacity for possibility, grace and wonder. His great theme was charting the intersection of history and personal fate. He retained those gifts until the end of his remarkable life."
Also at RogerEbert.com, Michał Oleszczyk: "With a career spanning over 60 years and 40 feature films (as well as many other projects, both in film and theatre), there’s more than enough Wajda out there to keep being discovered and rediscovered." And he presents an annotated list of ten favorites.
"For much of his life, over and above his creative output, Wajda was one of the key custodians of his country’s conscience," writes Michael Brooke for Sight & Sound, "and there are few obvious cinematic parallels: Giuseppe Verdi seems a closer fit, not only because both men so brilliantly crystallized their national mood at several points in their careers but also for their brief parliamentary careers representing the winning side of a revolutionary upheaval—and if their legislative achievements were undistinguished, the symbolic import of their presence amongst their country’s elected representatives was anything but. Wajda didn’t just document history, he also helped make it."
"In later life, Wajda may have been a cuddly national treasure and internationally revered elder statesman," writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter, "but he remained perpetually wary of the dangerous power of film, both to spread lies and expose them."
Update, 10/12: "Born in a country that, several times obliterated, cast its poets as interpreters of national identity, Mr. Wajda was a people’s artist in a way unanticipated by the Communist regime that trained and ambivalently supported him," writes J. Hoberman in the New York Times. "Adapting the work of Poland’s most celebrated writers, Mr. Wajda saw himself as the heir to the Polish romantic art of the 19th century—although there was nothing 19th century about his confrontational approach. The impact of the tumultuous Wajda style can be seen on the films of younger Polish directors, like Andrzej Zulawski and Agnieszka Holland, as well as on the recent Hungarian film Son of Saul. Martin Scorsese has also cited Mr. Wajda as an influence. But no filmmaker, not even John Ford, has ever been more steeped in his own nation’s history."
Update, 10/16: "A melancholy round of applause greeted the first Rome Film Festival screening on Friday of Afterimage, the stark, solemn final film directed by the Polish master Andrzej Wajda," reports Justin Chang for the Los Angeles Times. "Before his death on Sunday at the age of 90, Wajda had been expected to attend the festival and participate in a conversation about his body of work—which… remains as probing and prolonged an immersion in a nation’s tragic history as any filmmaker has ever produced. Afterimage, while not one of the high points of Wajda’s celebrated career, nonetheless provides a fitting capstone…. Step by step, Wajda shows how Strzemiński, though beloved by his admirers and students, is removed from his intellectual sphere—stripped of his teaching position at the School of Visual Arts in Lodz (which he had co-founded), and forced to watch as his paintings are ripped from their galleries and even destroyed. And then, in a final twist of the knife, Strzemiński is removed from life altogether, robbed of every last coin, morsel of food and scrap of dignity by a government that had once supported him. As a tribute from one dissident artist to another, Afterimage holds up a cruel counter-history of sorts to Wajda’s own career."
Update, 10/24: "If he made us sentimental," writes Sheila Skaff for Bright Lights, "we might look for clues as to why in the sheer size and breadth of his oeuvre, a forceful and eclectic canon of works that delve into the past in a way that reminds us of his own cinematic ideal from his university years, Citizen Kane. He prodded, he probed, and he came to a few inconclusive conclusions. While his colleagues emigrated or turned to other pursuits, he put together the pieces of his country’s jigsaw puzzle in film after film."